It’s all about who you know

It’s all about who you know

Being human, it’s easy getting stuck in the same routine once you find something that works. I was reminded of that this past week while attending my favourite local coffee shop, DOSC, as the barista I’ve come to know superficially kindly called me out for always ordering the same thing. Outside of the shock that someone actually thought that I, the man that just changed his hairstyle for the first time since 2001, was too stagnant and predictable, she was right. So I suppressed the urge to ramble about the haircut she never noticed and all the other ways in which I’m not boring and ordered something different. Yes, the only difference from the usual order was that the bean came from a different African country, but Rome wasn’t built in a day and I’d never felt so alive after making that impulsive decision.

As a professional urban planner, I’m very used to leveraging relationships to serve my needs. It comes very naturally.

“Oh, I need an answer about the location and condition of underground pipes”, I’ll think to myself, “Roger knows how to find that information. I’ll go ask him.”

Then I’ll pat myself on the pack for a job well done and put the skill (finding the information, not finding the person who finds the information) on my mental resume for the next time I get tasked with a similar project.

This isn’t a hypothetical situation, either. It actually happened recently when a friend of mine asked for help finding that exact information. I checked that mental resume and confidently responded that I did of course know; when in reality all I know is who to ask, not what the actual process is.

So, fueled by the barista’s comments and my desire to be independent and mediocre at everything, I avoided my usual crutches for answers and decided to figure it out on my own. Like my friend would have if he hadn’t asked me.

My first step was the internet, I’m a millennial after all, more specifically the City’s website. I used the handy search function and tried to resurrect the teachings from university about how to maximize search engine efficiency to little avail. I read over my rambling, hit the enter button without any confidence whatsoever, and was greeted by over 5000 options filtered by what the algorithm determined was relevance to my query.

After reading the first page and seeing that either I needed to be more specific to help out the algorithm. I was given a shorter, fresher list of results but was left with the same amount of disappointment, as none of the options provided me the information I needed.


I decided to rethink my entire strategy. It was time to go down to the City’s Administration and speak to a human. Because clearly I have no idea how to communicate with robots.

Promising myself to work on that before they inevitably take over, I headed to the City’s brand new building, armed with a new confidence and a list of specifics, ready to talk my way out of the situation.


Upon arriving at the second floor – where the public goes for answers, I was greeted by a machine as I entered the customer service area. This gave that confidence a slight hit as I had been mentally preparing to use my charm on a person instead of another machine (they just don’t get my humour, clearly), but nevertheless I swallowed my anxiety and started navigating through the menu options.


This robot was much more helpful than the last one, and told me I’d have to go to a different building one block away to get the information I sought.


“Fair enough”, I thought to myself, “at least this robot is helpful.”

As I was turning to leave, a security guard that had been standing nearby arrived and told me that I should simply take a number and talk to someone at the development counter. I pointed at the screen above contradicting his advice, yet he insisted that I stay and talk to someone in this building. This put me in the awkward position of having to choose between trusting a human or a robot. With the trauma of my 15 minutes of internet searching still fresh in my mind, I decided to trust the security guard, took a number, and hit the waiting area.

A few short minutes later my number was called and I hurried to the counter to meet the smiling representative.

I smiled back, made a joke about the weather to put us both at ease, and explained my rehearsed list of needs.

She blinked at me.

I blinked back.

She started with “um….”, and the PTSD from the internet search debacle returned a little.

She stated she was simply an administrator and would get me to see a development representative. My smile faded as she handed me back my number and directed me to a separate waiting area, because that’s what I already thought I was doing coming to this counter. I was a little annoyed, but the second waiting area was smaller and therefore more specialized in the information I was seeking, I concluded.

My number was called again and I went to the second counter, where a young man complimented my headphones and talked to me about them at length because he had the same pair. This was already better than the other human interactions, because I love my headphones and could go on for hours about them. Plus, his title was “Planner”, so he spoke my professional language. Finally feeling at home, I explained to him what I wanted, exactly the same as I had the first person.

He blinked at me.

I blinked back, starting to wonder if this reaction was a corporate mandate.

He started with “um….” and wonder turned to certainty. When he explained to me that he didn’t think anybody in that entire service centre could help me, the fact that he and I had a moment over headphones quickly evaporated the remaining hope I had for this place. Through gritted teeth I explained to him what the robot at the front had told me now 45 minutes ago, and when he agreed that was a good place to start, I said “thank you” instead of what I really wanted to say and left the counter. This was clearly a ‘hating the game instead of the player’ moment, and all I’d really lost was time and a healthy respect for said game were the calming statements I gave myself as I returned to the first robot to confirm the directions it had provided me earlier. The security guard, naturally, was nowhere to be found to receive his look of displeasure and disappointed head shake, which only served to increase my rage.

I left and headed to the building in which I was supposed to be, in plain sight from the building I had just left:


I walked the block to that building and headed up to the 20th floor as instructed by the only one that seemed to care about my needs.

robot hearts

Upon my arrival, there were two empty reception desks on either side of me, without any semblance of signage or any other indication that I was in a public area, let alone the right place.

As I stood there regretting my initial decision to be independent in this endeavour, the head of a security guard popped up from behind one of the desks and I rushed over there to explain to the 4th person (and 2nd robot) what I was searching for. I fought the urge to bitch about all the happenings before my arrival in front of his desk for fear that rage and tears may emerge.

He was the third person that blinked at me in the past hour like I was asking a complex riddle, and when he admitted he had no idea how to help me I contemplated everything from hitting the floor for an all-out toddler tantrum to testing the training he had received in hand-to-hand combat.

He was a big guy though, and luckily before I made a decision he got right on the phone to find someone that could help. While I waited for another ‘specialist’ to come meet me, I was asked to sign the visitor log and debated whether or not to use my real name in case my mind changed about being civil.

Then came Joern.

Thick German accent, balding and surprised to see me, the first thing he said was “we don’t usually get public drop-ins here”, to which I took as an opportunity to give him the shortened version of how my travels – now fully into hour 2 since I embarked on this mission, had led me to him.

Joern took me to a meeting room, understood what I was looking for and provided me the information I needed, plus a business card with contact information so I could reach his team directly and get the information faster next time I was faced with a similar task. I thanked both he and Vince the security guard for their help (almost emotionally choking up while doing so) and returned to my office, arriving a full 158 minutes from the start of my adventure. I went straight to Roger’s desk to regale him the tale.

“You should have just asked me and I’d have given you that number to contact to save you all the trouble”, was what he said to me.

I just blinked at him.


One Response

  1. great article; very enjoyable. typical. i use the internet, then the phone, then emails to ask questions. i found planners in OTTAWA friendly but use too much jargon and are not, to me, creative. and they have no power; planning committee councilors make decsions and even if local planners go against developers and this city is run by developers, the developers go the Ontario Municipal board which routinely sides with the developers. disgusting.

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